Kamala Harris’ political views shaped by her Indian mother: Uncle
Kamala Harris’ uncle says her fondness for India doesn’t translate into a ‘free pass’ for everything India does.
Kamala Harris’ ability to stick to her principles and her commitment to human rights are two qualities that will stand her in good stead if she and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden win the US elections, her uncle Gopalan Balachandran said on Wednesday.
Balachandran said much of Harris’ views on politics and civil rights were shaped by her strong-willed mother, Shyamala Gopalan, who went against convention by travelling to the US for studies in 1958, and her grandfather, PV Gopalan, who rose from a humble beginning as a stenographer to become a government official who was deputed to Zambia in the 1960s to help with a refugee crisis because of his experience in rehabilitating refugees from Pakistan.
In an interview at his home in New Delhi, which was virtually taken over by media crews on Wednesday following the news that Biden had picked Harris as his running mate, the 80-year-old academic who specialises in civil nuclear issues and economics said his strongest impression of his niece was her ability to stand her ground.
Referring to Harris’ decision in 2004, when she was serving as district attorney in San Francisco, not to seek the death penalty for the killer of a policeman despite opposition from the police union, Balachandran said: “The ability to stick to her principles and to convince those who opposed her logic to come to her side, that was my strongest impression of her.”
Harris’ commitment to human rights and justice is largely due to her mother Shyamala, who married Jamaican national Donald Harris after meeting him during the black civil rights movement of the 1960s. Balachandran, who has a PhD in economics and computer science from the University of Wisconsin, said his sister Shyamala was politically active in the US when it was unheard of for Indian-Americans to do so.
This commitment to rights issues has been reflected in Harris’ position against India’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the situation in Kashmir, Balachandran said, acknowledging that she is unlikely to change her stance even if it upsets those in the corridors of power in New Delhi.
“She likes India, obviously her family is Indian but that doesn’t mean she gives a free pass to everything that India does. She will not accept somebody saying, ‘It’s done in India, so why are you stopping it?’ She’ll say, ‘Look it may be India but is something which should not be done, which is against my feelings’,” he added.
But Balachandran, who was earlier part of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and served as a consultant to the Americas division of the external affairs ministry, said he believes India-US relations are too strong to be affected by the views of an individual.
“Today there’s nothing in India-US relations that requires presidential or vice presidential intervention at the highest level. These are small things – whether one export control licence should be given to India or not...Both the US administration and Congress are already working on [these issues], all that she has to make sure is the administration follows what they are told to do,” he said.
Harris, the first American of Indian and African origin and only the third woman to run for vice president, also has a strong connection to her roots. “Her roots are a combination of things – her mother’s roots are her roots, and her mother’s roots were strongly Indian in one sense and strongly independent in the other sense. [Harris’] roots are strongly influenced by her mother, and through her mother, when she used to come to India, her grandfather and others,” Balachandran said.
Asked if Harris had benefited from the progressive and liberal views of her grandfather, PV Gopalan, and grandmother Rajam, Balachandran said: “They just said people are equal, people should do what they want, they should study, you should not force them to do something. So what’s so liberal about it? That’s how you treat human beings.”
“[They] didn’t mind the Jamaican son-in-law, a Mexican daughter-in-law, a 19-year-old daughter going abroad to study by herself and taking part in demonstrations in another country.”
Balachandran said he had no plans to speak to Harris before the US elections are over, mainly because of concerns that someone in the US could use such a conversation to target her during the campaign. “If I tell her something, [they will say her] uncle is an expert on India-US relations and is advising her. The Indians are interfering in the US,” he said.
But he did send a message to Harris after learning that Biden had chosen her as running mate. “I sent her a congratulatory message this morning. I said, ‘Kamala, congratulations. Shyamala would have been very proud.’”